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Migrant key workers: time to act

Written by Marta Foresti


Migrants are at the forefront of the Covid-19 response worldwide: nearly 50% of agricultural workers in the US are foreign-born, as are 33% of doctors in the UK. Importantly, everyone is now talking about ‘them’, the immigrants, the heroes.

A few weeks ago when I wrote my ‘ode to key workers’ it felt necessary to make the point that so-called ‘low-skilled workers’ are saving our lives every day, and that many are migrants. Today this is a national conversation, from the US (subscription required) to Australia via Portugal, Belgium, and here in the UK.

Leaving hospital on Saturday night, Prime Minister Boris Johnson praised all the NHS workers who looked after him, but especially ‘two nurses who stood by my bedside for forty-eight hours when things could have gone either way. They’re Jenny from New Zealand, Invercargill on the South Island to be exact, and Luis from Portugal near Porto’. Jenny and Luis are just two of the 22% of NHS nurses who are immigrants. Along with all key workers, they are essential to our societies and economies, not just in time of crisis, but always.

Surely this is the time to fix our immigration policies and make these essential workers feel welcome? Not quite.

Just as the British acting Prime Minister Dominic Raab encouraged us to clap in support of healthcare workers last Thursday, the Home Office thought it a good time to publish a clarification on its recent immigration policy guidance stating ‘There will not be an immigration route specifically for those who do not meet the skills or salary threshold for the skilled worker route’. Clearly, low-skilled workers are still very much not welcome here.

Beyond the UK, while migrant essential workers save our lives, we continue to put theirs at (an even greater) risk. Italy has closed its ports, citing risks from Covid-19. Libya remains unsafe and dangerous for migrants to return to. Europe is nowhere to be seen. Once again, people are stranded at sea, dying perfectly avoidable deaths.


Migration remains deeply political – and the politics of Covid are not going in the right direction: expect more nationalism, less international cooperation and stricter border control as part of the ‘new normal’ post coronavirus. So, it is not surprising that many are sceptical, cynical even.

The new found gratitude for the heroic migrant workers at the frontline of the pandemic seems disingenuous and it will not as such change the way ‘low skilled’ migrants are treated.

Yet for all of us advocating a fairer and more effective approach to global migration, this is an opportunity that we cannot miss. Over the past few years, we have been lamenting the need to change the narrative on migration, outraged by restrictive government policies – with very little result. Time to put laments and outrage to the side, learn some lessons, be pragmatic and play a long-haul game towards reform and change.

Here is how.

  • Practice before policy. All around the globe countries, cities and regions are putting in place new measures or removing obstacles to facilitate migrants’ workers contribution to the Covid-19 response. These examples demonstrate that things can indeed change, and quite rapidly too. We are collecting these stories to help learn from these practices to shape future policies. We also hope that they will help sustain the momentum through new alliances across sectors.
  • Skills in the ‘new normal’. While Covid-19 is clearly an unprecedented global emergency, the essential contribution of migrant workers to economies and societies is nothing new and will not change in the ‘new normal’ ahead of us. They saved lives before and they will save lives in the future. Let’s make this the end of the disposable, unappreciated ‘low-skilled worker’ and work towards policies that match all skills with labour market gaps.
  • Essential sectors, essential people. Too often we advocate for changes to immigration policies in a vacuum, in isolation from what matters to communities and societies. What is happening around us demonstrates in practice the contribution and dedication of migrant workers in a range of sectors; from health to hospitality. Let us move the ‘national conversation’ away from immigration towards what our communities, cities, and businesses will need to thrive after the crisis.

This is about all of us – not ‘them’. Too often attempts to get the migration narrative ‘right’ falls back into unhelpful categorisations; the bad migrant and the deserving refugee, the native and the foreign born, us and them. If there is one thing to learn and treasure from the devastating experience of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is the need to rethink the way communities and societies need to come together into a renewed social contract, that no longer hides the deep inequalities of the ‘old’ normal.

Where one is born really should no longer matter.